I. Not Choosing is Un-American
Sue me, America: I like both Italian and Mexican food. Sometimes I’m in the mood for a the bright flavors of tomatillo, cilantro, and jalapeño, while at other times I find myself craving the deep hues of red gravy, pungent cheese, and beef, veal, and pork pressed into roughly spherical forms. Regularly I’ll want bread to start my meal, but just as often I’ll itch for chips and salsa.
Why must you press me to choose the best cuisine? Well, because the Founding Fathers made us to be better than that; you’ve decide. As George Washington once said, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”
And so for decades, the Beatles and Rolling Stones have stood before us as the twin titans of the British Invasion, but only one band can set upon the Iron Throne.
Bucking with musical partisanship, however, is March 28’s 1st Annual Beatles/Stones Invitational at Collingswood Music, a benefit to raise money for free music instruction to deserving children. I’m not connected to the fine folks that are putting on this event––although I’ll be there, and the people producing are truly fine––but I love how all of the 30 performers have been asked to perform one Beatles and Stones song each. Let the gyre of who’s better be unbroken.
But yeah, the Beatles won. They’re the better band.
II. Why the Beatles Won
This is the easy part. Sure, they could occasionally be psychedelic, country, and soulful, but the Stones were one trick wild horses. They loved them some 1950’s Chess Records, and loved them hard. In the Stones best music, you can hear a lot of Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf, but you can’t always hear a lot else. Mick, Keef, and company rocked harder than their foppish foes, but a one-speed car can’t get you everywhere you need to go on time.
Similarly, if you dig into the Stones’ ‘60s LP’s, you find those blues-based chargers shining in a murky soup of what’s dogged the long-playing record since Colonel Tom needed extra material to pad two, long sides: filler. Ask an average music aficionado what’s on not just heavyweights like Sgt. Pepper’s or Revolver but also on lesser lights like Beatles for Sale or Help!, and she’ll probably be able to fill out most of the track listing. But inquire after the same thing for the Stones beyond perhaps Exile on Main Street or Let It Bleed––Aftermath, anyone?––and you’ll be greeted a Keith Richards-like stupor. There’s no shame in being one of the best singles bands of all time, and that’s basically what the Rolling Stones are. (Is it a crime if Hot Rocks, an early compilation of Rolling Stones hits, is one of my desert island discs?)
And realistically, even at the time, the Beatles and Stones were in different conversations. During 1966-7, for example, the Beatles were lapping up Beach Boys and Dylan records as they plotted musical ripostes that would preserve their reigning place of supremacy in the pop pantheon. John and Paul never bothered to ask, “What have the Stones been up to?” Instead, the Beatles were following different constellations; John and Paul continually sharpened the musical impulses of the other, and clearly they had a wider record collection that stretched beyond Chicago. Liverpool, New Orleans (Fats Domino), and Lubbock, Texas (Buddy Holly), had never before triangulated. And so the breadth and multiformity of their songs plus the depth and consistency of their albums matched the vertiginous sweep of the roaring 1960s itself. People liked it, but in contrast the Stones were just a rock and roll band.
III. What Was Lost
Let’s face it, however. If the Beatles were in Collingswood, they’d be Italian restaurants. To be clear, there’s not an Italian place in town that I don’t enjoy, but do we perpetually need another one? The Beatles suffer in that their victory not only over the Rolling Stones but over everyone else was too complete.
For one thing, American rock and roll didn’t quit when Elvis entered the army (nor did Elvis, contra Lennon’s famous aphorism). Regional scenes in the 1960‘s like Detroit (e.g., Mitch Ryder), Seattle (the Wailers), the deep South (Allmans), Texas (Sir Douglas Quintet), and the Northeast (lots) were all pumping out innovative rock that unfortunately got swallowed up both at the time and in retrospect by the British Invasion. (To say nothing of both Northern and Southern soul music! Sock it to me.) The Beatles may have played Shea Stadium, but the Remains opened for them. The latter didn’t remain, even though they deserved to.
Not only that, but over time hasn’t the “British Invasion” come to mean the “Beatlish Invasion”? We recognize the Beatles as Invasion Army Number One, and possibly the Stones were a lieutenant, maybe the Who were an army base mascot, and that’s about it. Why would a radio DJ play something from the Yardbirds, the Small Faces, the Kinks, Gerry and the Pacemakers, the Dave Clarke Five, the Animals, Herman’s Hermits, and Wayne Fontana when “Hey Jude” hasn’t yet finished fading out? Yes, we’ll always have “Yellow Submarine,” but wouldn’t an Ethiopian restaurant on Haddon Ave. be killer?
IV. Why the Beatles Really Won
Don’t listen to what the others say. The Beatles won because of what happens when we look in the mirror. Theirs was the perfect story: is it American or simply human that we centripetally glom towards an artist, businessperson, or politician that possesses ambition beyond any rational scale and then fulfills it? Truly, the only musical apples to the Beatles’ Apple are Elvis Presley and just maybe Michael Jackson. Even if dimly, they alone beheld pop music via X-ray, mastered its firmaments, and perceived its throbbing connection to our cultural central nervous system, only to set the whole damn thing on fire.
And only the perfect heroes fall perfectly. Elvis pulled the hat trick of a triple death, namely the army, the soundtrack, and the toilet. We understand, however, that his declivity was the sole coda that properly backgrounded and even confirmed his previous rise. For the Beatles, then, it was metaphysically necessary that they expired along with the 1960s. For the band greater than which no other could be conceived, ne plus ultra is bone literal.
When last call comes around, few of us would consider Eros a worthy opponent to Thanatos. Here’s the reason why in comparison to the Beatles, we say that the Stones suck: the latter didn’t die. When today we watch 71 year old Mick Jagger louche around the stage, we’re reminded that we’ve now grown old; when we listen to the Beatles, we remember that we once were young.